Before any other thing, let me explain the ‘we’ in the title. It is people born in the 60s, a little earlier, or possibly mid 70s. A generation which (in India) did not have access to television and the internet. A generation which could not tuck itself into bed without a book – many often hoodwinked parents by hiding Archie comics between text book pages. Later the comics occasionally made way for Hugh Hefners’ Playboy and his centrefold bunnies. We were boys tasting the first bittersweet joys of adulthood. ‘We’ lived through exciting times – times of want and longing, an era which despite some harmless amorous pursuits, was defined by innocence and naivete. As Charles Dickens wrote, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness…
I am not sure if youngsters still do these things…books were central to our existence. A close modern day analogy would be the cell phone or the laptop, without which it is today difficult to imagine a youngster for any significant length of time. We read till we were almost dead…Enid Blyton and her Famous Five, Secret Seven and the ‘R’ ( Barney mysteries) series were indeed to die for. Characters like George (from Famous Five), the quintessential tomboy and Uncle Quentin, the stern & strict ‘grown up’ were part of our real world, rather than fantasy. We saw a little of Dick and Anne in all our friends and fancied ourselves as little heroes, destined to be saviours of humanity.
The Guns of Navarone and the unforgettable opening lines: “A small, dusty man, in a small dusty room….”, from The Dark Crusader brought the inimitable Mr Alistair McLean into our lives. Ms Enid was sadly being edged out, having initiated us to the joys of simple English writing and reading. From the innocent world of scones and muffins, it was to the sinister world of sabotage and subversion .To Ms Blyton however, must go the credit of making us lifelong prisoners of the written word.
James Hadley Chase with ominous titles like Believed Violent , The Vulture is a Patient Bird or Like a Hole in the Head, ran McLean close, despite his blockbusters like Where Eagles Dare, Puppet on a Chain and others. Chase seemed to have his nose ahead, with those few suggestive, titillating accounts of amour, stopping just short of the roll, thrown in. Despite possibly higher literary and storytelling value, I think McLean lost out to Chase… voyeurism has always had its uses.
The peerless Erle Stanley Gardner and his unforgettable creation, Perry Mason, the indefatigable, genial lawyer brought the American judicial system with all its faults, foibles and fantasies into our vistas. His alliterative titles like The Case of the Horrified Heirs, The Case of the Vagabond Virgin and so many such, had us rushing to the local book lender (yes, these worthies, masquerading as librarians, actually existed – a testimony to the prevalence of the reading bug then) with 25 paisa in change to get the latest Perry Mason. We fought over these books, we swore by Mason and we hated DAs…those wily shysters with pointed noses in pin striped suits, often with a pince nez, out to convict innocents, who our hero defended through excellent briefs prepared with the help of Della Street, his suave and smart secretary. She was as close as you could get to a computer those days. Sadly, Perry and Della were never romantically involved – if they were, Mr Gardener surely kept us guessing!
The advent of books and authors in our lives was not necessarily sequential…rather it was concurrent, or even random. I do not exactly recall when Harold Robbins made an entry. I do remember however, that it was with a bang. A Stone for Danny Fisher took our small literary world by storm. The struggles, successes and eventual doom of a young Jewish street fighter, Danny Fisher, cast a spell, traces of which still hang in the air. That fictional character, not the ideal Momma’s boy you bring home, has been an evergreen hero – perhaps a sign of the times we grew up in. The Carpetbaggers and it’s prequel, Nevada Smith, brought home Hollywood and its glitz – accompanied lamentably, as critics aver, with liberal doses of sex and gore. As I said, those were heady, tough days – you needed your Danny Fishers and Nevada Smiths, even as those were not, by ethical standards then prevalent, exemplary influences on young men. Discerning parents frowned – others were blissfully oblivious to the literary pursuits of their wards.
In between we made forays into the Wild West. ‘Sudden‘, that unforgettable character by Oliver Strange, so named due to the lightning speed with which he drew his revolvers, introduced the world of Red Indians, horses, squaws, posses, pistol duels and motels in dusty one-horse towns with creaky swing doors. It was toxic. Louis L’amour, the other author of ‘Westerns’ who broke into the scene, filled up any gaps that Mr Strange may have left. We were indeed spoilt for choice. Hollywood, New York, Arizona, values, ethics, courts, bars, sex, violence, sleaze, espionage and subterfuge vied for our fleeting attention spans – America in all its avatars, had found a niche in our minds.
And then came what I call the lord and master – PG Wodehouse. As has been famously said, there are two kinds of people in this world : those who have read PG Wodehouse and those who have not. To quote Hugh Laurie “…..PG Wodehouse is still the funniest writer ever to put words on paper…those who contest this must be irretrievably insane….”. Bertie Wooster, Jeeves, The Drones Club, The Empress of Blandigs, Aunt Agatha….the list of these unforgettable characters, places and stories that kept you enthralled, in awe and in splits, is a mile long. Only the Master could have woven them in the web of farce, burlesque and absurdity that he did and made language sound like music! I remain till date, amongst the most ardent Wodehouse fans and an eternal, diehard aspirant for Drones Club membership. As Bertie Wooster would say , “Not likely, ole chap……”
As I said, our reading graph was not linear…we read authors in no particular order – in the sequence we could lay our hands on the books in a time of scarcity. In between, some of us were privileged to read semi classics like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. It was fun to be a Scarlett O’Hara and Rhett Butler aficionado at a time when Ashley and Melanie were the flavour of the day. You could always impress the few girls that you spoke to in your late teens with misquotes from GWTW. At around the same time, one of the most intense characters, Atticus Finch, from Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made the profound impact that he does on all who have read this classic. These books literally had the power to shape character, and I would imagine they did.
In between, and as we savoured college life, our literary taste buds got more defined and varied. There were several authors who at various times and stages donned the tag of favourites – Irving Wallace, Ian Fleming, Arthur Hailey, Erich Segal, Robin Cook, Stephen King, AJ Cronin, Ayn Rand, Leon Uris, John Grisham….Then there were those few writers who could cast a spell with only one book of theirs that you could lay your hands on, like Marie Corelli (Vendetta), Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds), Alberto Moravia (The Woman of Rome), Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca) and a few others. Some of us flirted with DH Lawrence, he of the evergreen and titillating Lady Chatterley’s Lover fame – and (so we thought) were none the worse for wear for it, even as one had to read it clandestinely and drew severe rebuke from parents, extending to a full ban on reading, if ever found in possession of such ‘putrid’ literature! So, the reading career, such as it was, was chequered and many-faceted, if it was anything!
That’s the wrap folks. As ‘we’, well past our prime, enter the evening of our lives (some of you may vehemently contest that – God bless you), and even perhaps prepare for the hereafter, I would unhesitatingly draw on the Mary Hopkins song : “those were the days”. A touch of the maudlin there – advancing years do that to you! The reading habit, even as all that we read was not ideal or classic, stood us in good stead right through life – in the lessons imbibed, the language skills adapted, the broadening of our intellectual horizons and most importantly, facing up to the challenges life threw up with alarming regularity. The books we read helped establish a connect (Ms Blyton would frown at ‘connect’ being used as a noun – the perils of modern day usage, which has not left even us old timers untouched) with a world with which we had nothing in common. Yet there was alignment and association. Computers don’t do that. Those books gave us an education which I felt school only complemented.
Mushy as it appears, one would imagine that that generation faded away with the advent of technology, television and terabytes. Kids, young and old, do not read as much anymore – they only assimilate, I suspect, without imbibing. They are of course, a whole lot smarter. Laptops and cellphones have ushered in a million plusses, but in one fell swoop, put an end to the age of innocence and chastity. Ms Blyton, Mr Wodehouse and their ilk would however, remain indelibly and eternally etched on the collective psyches of that wonderful generation. We owe them our very childhood, some of our happiest times and so much more.